GINO'S EAST (633 N. Wells St.; 312-943-1124) Pizza in Chicago is traditionally deep dish, and Gino's East claims to be the original. With its biker theme and graffiti-covered walls, customers can expect to pay anywhere from $6 to $20 for a pie. Pasta and sandwiches are also on the menu, and as for drinks, Gino's brews its own beer. Gino's East Combo Platter is a way to sample appetizers like mozzarella sticks, spinach sticks and calamari, while those wanting to take a bite out of tradition should personalize their own deep dish made with chunky tomato sauce and golden crust.
PORTILLO'S (100 W. Ontario St.; 312-587-8910) This Chicago tradition boasts award-winning Polish sausage, hot dogs and Italian beef. In the two-story, gangster-themed restaurant, customers help themselves, cafeteria-style, to meat, along with other menu items like salad and pasta. The restaurant began as a hot dog stand in a trailer, and now the 1950s-style metal exterior attracts both locals and visitors who are craving meat from the grill. Owned by Dick Portillo, he promises the "best food and the best service available."
HARRY CARAY'S RESTAURANT (33 W. Kinzie St.; 312-828-0966) The late Hall of Fame baseball announcer opened this Italian steakhouse in 1987. Prime rib, aged steaks, Italian specialties and seafood are all on the menu, and the Chicken Vesuvio is a house favorite. Considered the "official home plate of the Chicago Cubs," Harry Caray's mix of tasteful baseball memorabilia and white-jacketed servers combine hometown fun with playful elegance. The barroom features a 60-foot, 6-inch bar, constructed to be the same distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate. When Harry Caray passed away, a tradition began that each night at 7:30 p.m., patrons have a "sing along with Harry" on the big-screen TV.
THE BILLY GOAT TAVERN (430 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-222-1525) When the original owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, William Sianis, was forbidden to bring his goat into Wrigley Field in 1945, the legend says that a curse was placed over the Chicago Cubs that would leave them barren of a World Series Championship. Now, the pub attracts both tourists who want to live the legend, as well as loyal patrons who are attracted to the simple American menu, featuring cheeseburgers and chips. This restaurant is tucked beneath the Chicago Tribune building, but it's worth the search for the white sign inviting patrons to "Butt in anytime." The staff may be a bit abrasive, but it's part of the atmosphere, which was once mocked in a skit on Saturday Night Live.
ED DEBIVIC'S (640 N. Wells St.; 312-664-1707) The waiter might just jump up and dance on the countertop at this 1950s-style diner. With chili, burgers and wet fries on the menu, this upbeat establishment is just the place to go for traditional American food and a little excitement. The wait staff is taught to mock a bit of rudeness, but that makes for a good party atmosphere. The Windy City Chili is a favorite and patrons can decide what ingredients are added, such as beans, macaroni, cheese and onions. The menu is low-priced, and to go with the theme, a large section of the menu is devoted to milkshakes and malts.
CARSONS'S BBQ RIBS, STEAKS & CHOPS (612 N. Wells St.; 312-280-9200) After the fresh baked bread and award-winning coleslaw comes the main event at this popular rib joint that's been a Chicago mainstay for 25 years. Barbecue ribs, chops, chicken and prime steaks make up the menu here, where the meat is smoked on a rotisserie barbecue pit, then dipped in a sweet barbecue sauce permeating the meat in a way that a quick brush job can't quite match. Prepare to wear a bib, however, because these ribs can get a bit messy.
PUMP ROOM (1301 N. State Parkway; 312-266-0360) Since 1938, the Pump Room remains a magnet for movie stars and celebrities. Located in the Omni Ambassador East Hotel, patrons can enjoy a five-course tasting featuring lobster cake and Pump Room salad, followed by sterling silver California sturgeon. For the main course, try braised Durham ranch bison short ribs, and the Pump Room teardrop, a popular dessert. Live entertainment takes place on Friday and Saturday evenings. No jeans are allowed.
AMBRIA (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-472-5959) In this romantic setting in the Belden-Stratford building, Chef Gabino Soletino delights his guests with elegant French cuisine. The interior features deep-toned wood, suede banquettes and etched glass. Appetizers might include lobster medallions in a caviar beurre blanc, or a pastry stuffed with escargot and seasonal vegetables, while the main course could be roasted rack of lamb with stuffed baby eggplant, couscous and artichoke. The cost of an average entree is $30. A jacket is required.
JAPONAIS (600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-822-9600) Inside this restaurant decorated by Jeffrey Beers International, executive chefs Jan Ickikawa and Gene Kato combine contemporary Japanese cuisine and sushi in an exciting and innovative atmosphere. Enjoy maple leaf smoked duck with hoisen sauce, followed by the Tokyo Tower made of homemade green tea ice cream with passion fruit. The restaurant includes the Red Room, the Green Room, the Riverwalk Cafe and the lounge area, which all blend European and Japanese elegance. Both casual and fine dining is available.
SUSHI SAMBA RIO (504 N. Wells St.; 312-595-2300) Chicago is home to the newest Sushi Samba, with the others located in New York and Miami. The menu is described at Latin-Asian fusion, with typical sushi dishes as well. For dinner, choose from a large plate or small plate, or sample items from the raw bar. As for drinks, a Brazilian Caipirinha with muddled limes is a house favorite. The bright, colorful interior evokes a tropical island mood, and a Latin DJ spins after 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
CHINA GRILL (230 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-334-6700) Located in the Hard Rock Hotel, a fifth China Grill restaurant opened in Chicago in October 2004. This restaurant brings its glitzy New York flare and offers a Pan-Asian menu and an impressive wine selection. The "drunken chicken" is a popular entree and the bar's twist on martinis with sake and lemongrass are favorites. Appetizers include coriander-dusted shrimp with Asian slaw and yuzu glaze and red pepper sauce. Portions are large and sharing is encouraged. Paying close attention to China Grill's interior is nearly as important as the menu. The floor tiles in the main dining room are inscribed with excerpts from Marco Polo's diary.
OSTERIA VIA STATO (620 N. State St.; 312-642-8450) A traditional Italian-style progression dining experience is offered at Osteria Via Stato where three-course prix fixe menu items will run about $36. Antipasto is followed by pasta or risotto, and then comes the meat or fish of choice. For an after-dinner drink, the restaurant offers a selection of 40 wines served by the quartino.
ROSEBUD ON RUSH (720 N. Rush St.; 312-266-6444) Located just off the Magnificent Mile, it was rated one of the "top 10 restaurants in America" by Travel and Leisure magazine after it opened in 1992. It's known to attract out-of-towners, locals, politicians and celebrities, and the outdoor terrace is nice, weather permitting. There are two levels of dining, the downstairs being the place for live entertainment with a piano and smoking room. The menu features Italian classics, along with steaks and seafood.
AVENUES (108 E. Superior St.; 312-573-6754) This four-star contemporary restaurant offers a view overlooking the historic Chicago Water Tower. It's on the fifth floor of the Peninsula Hotel. Award-winning chef Graham Elliot Bowles uses his Johnson and Wales education to offer a menu full of seasonal seafood specialties and entrees like seared lamb. Appetizers, including Alaskan king crab, usually run for $20. Jackets are preferred and reservations are recommended.
HOT CHOCOLATE (1747 N. Damen Ave.; 773-489-1747) Pastry chef Mindy Segal has opened her own urban cafe, and desserts are the main focus. Try some flaky crusted rhubarb pie delivered in a small crock, and served dripping with house-made sour cream ice cream. The Banana Napoleon is also a favorite with its caramelized bananas mixed with banana coffee cake with a butter and sugar topping, layered between graham crackers and served with a banana ice cream.
Restaurants for this report were suggested by Pat Bruno, restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Sarah Stone, a reporter in New York raised in Chicago. Information was derived from the restaurants' own Web sites and review sites. This is not intended to be a professional review, nor did SN visit any of the restaurants cited.